ERFURT, GERMANY — Jule Grahmann had heard enough from her classmates.
Fellow students at her high school in a small east German city would say mean things about Syrian refugees who’ve resettled in the country over the past five years. And there were the comments in history class, when other students would talk “in a very mean way” about World War II.
Outside of school, she’d hear trash-talking on the soccer field, aimed at nonnative German players.
“Most of them wanted to make fun, but sometimes it escalated to conflicts between parents,” Grahmann said.
It inspired Grahmann to start an anti-racism group at her school.
“I think this is the problem, lots of young people doesn’t think of their opinions and of their comments in a real way,” she said. “They sometimes aren’t aware of what they do to others.”
Targeting racist thoughts when they’re still schoolyard taunts has long been the strategy in Germany for combating far-right extremism and preaching tolerance. But there’s been a renewed wave of anti-immigrant politics, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic attacks, showing the work is ongoing.
Grahmann receives support from one of several organizations in Germany confronting racism: the Network for Democracy and Courage.
“In school especially when you talk about politics, or when you talk about refugees, this is when those thoughts come up,” said Anika Färber, a trainer for NDC.
When children are in school, they’re a captive audience. Their teachers carry a lot of influence, activists say. But what they hear outside of school, namely at home, is the biggest challenge.
And so organizations such as NDC go into schools to try to reach kids before their views and beliefs are hardened.
“I’ve learned pretty quickly that it’s pretty much impossible to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced,” said Gio Hoffmann, another trainer with NDC. “Especially if their family shares their views, if their friends share their views, it’s pretty much impossible.”
Two capitals, similar scenes
Teaching tolerance and Germany’s ability to combat extremism has been tested over the past half-decade, as there’s been an increasingly prominent far-right element and further diversification of Germany (about a quarter of Germans have immigrant backgrounds).
Anti-government protests have been a regular event in Berlin and other big cities for the past year, by those opposed to coronavirus lockdowns. At a protest in late August, demonstrators rushed the steps of Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag, but were turned away by police before trying to enter.
And then came a similar, but more destructive event in Washington, D.C. The riot at the U.S. Capitol this month quickly drew comparisons to events during the rise of Nazi Germany.
Michael Brenner teaches history at American University in Washington, D.C., and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. He actually compares the U.S. Capitol riot to Hitler’s failed Beer Hall coup in 1923. He says it wasn’t until a few decades after World War II that Germans began to openly confront the past.
“Germany has done, I would say, a very good job in facing its own past, in making very clear that the Holocaust and how it came to both the Nazi rule and the Holocaust has to be taught in schools,” he said.
Germany hadn’t had a democracy for long when Hitler tried to overthrow it. He succeeded a decade later, Brenner said, in part because there was a lack of confidence in Germany's democracy. Now trust and confidence in America’s government need to be restored, Brenner said.
“Of course not to give up about these people who we saw storming the Capitol,” he said. “We have to somehow win the people back to what is reality, to what the facts are.”
Having survivors speak to younger generations of Germans was an anchor of teaching about the Holocaust and worked well, Brenner said, but few survivors are still alive today.
Society has changed since World War II and the early years of Germany’s philosophy of confronting its past, says Cornelius Strobel of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, and so the teaching strategy needs to as well.
“Schoolbooks still teach a very static view on the Holocaust and how that affects our society,” Strobel said.
As an example, he said curriculums need to be updated to acknowledge and address systemic oppression.
Brenner, the historian, added that in the United States, quelling a rise in extremism should come from elected leaders.
Extremism goes mainstream
As extremist ideology enters the mainstream, Felix Steiner from Mobit, an organization that works to combat hate crimes, says there aren’t necessarily more racist people in Germany, but it’s gotten easier to share the messaging, and it’s becoming more commonplace.
“You don’t need anything, you just need a computer, or a mobile phone now. And you’re in contact with these people,” he said.
He says the boots and trenchcoats of neo-Nazis of the 1990s have given way to the business suits of the right-wing political party Alternative for Germany (AfD), and social media memes and video games.
“It's a way to get in, and then you're confronted with all this racist stuff and anti-Semitic stuff and so on,” he said.
There have been several high-profile arrests of police officers and soldiers on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government.
Social media is “like a fire accelerator,” Strobel said.
Completely putting out the fire will be hard. The AfD consistently wins about 10% of votes in elections and was popular among younger voters in regional elections in Thuringia, in the eastern part of Germany, last year.
But Hoffman, the NDC trainer, knows her work left an impression when students express compassion for those who have been discriminated against.
“That’s usually when I say, ‘Yup, I did at least something right.’”